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I’m not a huge science fiction fan generally. I like Star Wars, and the first couple of Star Trek series, but it never became a way of life. My preferred style of science fiction, as with fiction generally, is either optimistic or funny.  I was born too early to really enjoy the dystopian trend of the last couple of decades.

The EFC that the FAFSA returned the other night falls into the “dystopian science fiction” category. I do not care for it.

To avoid  getting unduly specific, I’ll speak in percentages. Having finally filled out the various entries, The Boy and I held our breath and clicked “submit.”  In a flash, our Expected Family Contribution displayed. That’s the amount that the official formula thinks you can afford to pay before any aid needs to kick in.  It’s the amount that a college that advertises that it meets “full need” will expect you to cover.

The figure was...I’m struggling for the right word...preposterous.  I did a little back-of-the-envelope math, and realized that if you took a month’s take-home pay and subtracted the mortgage payment and a typical monthly total for utilities, the EFC would consume 60 percent of what’s left.  It would be a larger payment every month than the mortgage.

That’s nonsense on stilts.

Part of that may be regional. Remarkably, the FAFSA only looks at income and savings.  It does not look at expenses. If you live in an area where housing is expensive, it doesn’t adjust for that.  Nor, apparently, does it account for the fact that we might want to be able to save for The Girl’s education, which is only a few years away. 

As far as aid goes, we apparently fall into that uncanny valley where we make too much to get much help, but too little to afford it ourselves.  As do many, many people.

Which got me to wondering. Clearly, the formula is monstrously wrong.  Why hasn’t someone fixed it?

Probably because an artificially high EFC benefits several well-organized constituencies, but the harm it inflicts is on scattered and isolated people who don’t have collective leverage.

A high EFC keeps aid spending artificially low, to the political benefit of folks who want credit for supporting financial aid but who don’t want the political pain of paying for it.  It benefits high-cost colleges who can advertise that they meet “full need” precisely because “full need” is artificially minimized. It benefits private lenders who can offer to fill the gaps not covered by aid.  And the folks it hurts mostly grumble, but don’t organize.

This puts me in a spot many middle-class parents know painfully well. I know the political arguments against merit scholarships, and concede some validity to them.  But if TB doesn’t get something, most of his target schools are simply out of the question. That shouldn’t be true, of course, but it is.  

That’s a relatively recent development.  When New York State started the Regents’ scholarship, it covered full tuition at public colleges in the state.  Now, it’s a drop in the bucket. When I graduated Williams in 1990, the total cost for the following Fall hit $20,000, and we all sighed with relief that we got out before it did.  Had it kept pace with inflation, now it would be $38,000. It’s currently $71,000. After inflation, Rutgers’ in-state cost of attendance is almost as high as Williams’ was then. The low-cost option now nearly matches the high-cost option then.  The high cost option now is the bad kind of science fiction.

This is not sustainable. And as the saying goes, trends that can’t be sustained, won’t be.

I’d prefer the kind of monster that Captain Kirk could defeat with some styrofoam boulders and a speech about mercy.  This kind is tougher. It snuck up on us, a year at a time. In the meantime, FAFSA is clearly set on “stun,” and backfiring.

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